Skiing In Soldeu, Andorra

“If size mattered then the elephant would be king of the jungle”

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Good things come in small packages my mother always used to tell me growing up, and although she was more than likely saying it to make me feel better about my shorter stature she may have had a point. Sometimes the little things in life can offer you the most. Is it not on occasions nicer to have a romantic homecooked meal and a night in front of the fire with a loved one, rather than an elaborate meal out on the town? Or how about an engagement ring, one of the smallest gifts you can find, which can bring unbridled joy to so many people. Once again like with most destination reviews there’s about to be a tedious link.
If we’re talking small, then as countries go you’re unlikely to find too many countries smaller than Andorra… A miniscule landlocked principality sandwiched in between two European powerhouses, France and Spain.

Situated in the Pyrenes with France to the North and Spain to the South, Andorra has both countries cultural influences bursting out of its seams. Although the national language is Catalan both French and Spanish are widely spoken here, which is not much of a surprise, especially as many French and Spanish nationals have made it their home over the past century. To put it into perspective of how small a country Andorra actually is though, nearby is the neighbouring city of Barcelona home to the illustrious Nou Camp. If the entire population of Andorra were to seat themselves inside this stadium, you would still be left with a staggering 22,000 spare seats (there or there abouts). A ridiculous notion if you think about it. It’s no surprise then that Andorra is the eleventh smallest country in the world in relation to population. However, in actual size it increases, mainly due to the magnificent mountainous range on which it resides.

Basically, Andorra is a country sat at the top of a mountain.
Driving in from the north through the South of France is an experience on its own. Endless vineyards line a road which arrows towards the Pyrenees, providing stunning scenery in every direction. The closer you get, the bigger that mountain range becomes. A journey which feels like you’re Frodo Baggins heading to Mt Doom (excuse the Lord of the Rings reference). I say this because from below, these mountains are both magnificent and ominous in appearance. Unlike Andorra (and myself) huge in stature, and as you get to the foot of these peaks they stand tall overlooking everything in the vicinity…
Rather like that giant kid at school who was always friendly to you, but you knew if you got on his bad side you’d probably end up head first in a dustbin.

From the bottom begins the journey to the summit along narrow winding roads, which creep up the side of these monstrous freaks of nature. If you can stomach the dangerous paths, then the views are rather special.
With clear skies, travelling up at the end of the day can provide an unforgettable experience. The sunsets which appear whilst slowly making your way up the mountain are one thing, but as the sun disappears and darkness descends there is a sight many will rarely encounter. With nothing but vast areas of land and no one else on the roads, the closer you get to the top deep white snow starts to appear around you, thousands of stars engulf the sky, and a huge gleaming moon illuminates the world. Soon you realise that with the phenomenon of no unnatural light around, and the combination of moon and snow you can see miles into the distance with light as bright as day. With a midnight blue airspace, star filled skies, a huge luminous moon, and of course the surrounding terrain covered in white stuff it’s hard not to imagine that you’ve landed on another planet.

Another planet it is not… Just one of earths great natural wonders, and with mountains come only one thing… Skiing!
Hand-in-hand with an expansive resort tourism always follows… Perfectly set, Andorra is a paradise for those in love with winter snow sports. Vallnord, Naturlandia, and Grandvalira provide three top-class areas to ski, however it is the latter which really attracts those from around the globe. Situated in the east, with 200km of splendid slopes Grandvalira is widely renowned as the largest if not the greatest ski resort in the Pyrenees. Numerous slopes ranging from steady greens, to ballsy blacks provide those of all abilities an opportunity to ski and explore a huge mountain area without concern. Challenging for those who want it, whilst extremely enjoyable for those preferring a more chilled ride.
One of the best aspects of Grandvalira is the ability to ski from area to area… Pas de la Casa, Grau Roig, El Tarter, Canillo, Encamp and of course Soldeu. Individually fantastic ski areas, and the size of many decent resorts across the world. The fact that they all join to form one massive range enables something which only certain mountains across Europe are capable of. For those who love to explore it’s perfect and lends to hours and hours of ski time and adventure.

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Boredom will not occur here, that’s a guarantee. Not only are there endless amounts of slopes to ski on, there is variety for the more advanced snow sports enthusiasts amongst us. From mogle runs to snowparks, from off-piste to slalom runs the resort is your oyster.
If however you are not of the required level to partake in these variations, then all is not lost. Grandvalira is home to a number of high profile events to tickle your entertainment taste buds, and if you’re a fan of the Winter Olympics then you have a chance of watching some of your favourite competitions live in the flesh.
March holds host to some of the best freestyle snowboarders and skiers around with Total Flight: Masters of Freestyle, a truly stunning spectacle of acrobatics and skill. Whereas in the same month for those more into speed and on snow precision there is the FIS European Alpine Ski Championship Finals. These finals are also a pre-cursor to the World Championship Finals, which will be held on the same slopes in 2019.

For those wanting a bit more than just skiing then the place can be a little limited. There are shops, museums, and quaint towns to visit, but in winter if your travelling to Andorra you’ve pretty much just got the mountains. So, if you’re after a place with a bit more sightseeing then it’s advisable to look elsewhere. However, if you do fancy a change from the daily ski there are some alternatives on offer. For adrenaline sport junkies ice karting, 4×4 snow driving, ice skating and snow-mobiling are available, and will more than likely maintain the required fix. Whereas if you’d prefer to sooth those aching muscles instead of getting your heart pumping, then a spa day in a warmer environment is just for you. Luxurious relaxation right on your doorstep. For adults and children alike, there is more than enough to keep you entertained for a winter vacation.

Grandvalira is also an ideal location for those wanting to learn. The ski school based at the resort has its own English, Spanish, and French sections, plus many more nationalitities which are represented. If you’re from one of the major European countries then you are unlikely to come here and find an instructor which doesn’t speak your native language, which is a huge bonus. It is also worth mentioning that the standards set by the Instructors are incredibly high. With the world renowned Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance (CSIA) and Canadian Association of Snowboard Instructors (CASI) holding their European base here, many of their instructors opt to stay put and work for the ski school. It is widely appreciated that these instructors are some of the most reputable around, not just with their riding abilities but more importantly how they teach. This also provides a terrific location for those interested in doing a winter season, and the CSIA and CASI constantly put on courses for those wishing to improve their skiing and snowboarding. With exams regularly taking place throughout the winter, it is also an ample opportunity for those wanting to become the next generation of qualified Canadian Instructors. Either that or you can just bum it for the winter, and enjoy some fun in the sun.

Sun you say? Yes, due to its Southern European location, you have the best of both worlds. Mid-winter you get some of the best snow conditions across Europe, and in a good season you’ll see dumps of powder landing on the resort, whilst also getting a better share of the sunshine. This is ideal for those keen skiers and boarders who love the cold and the amazing conditions which come with it, mixed in with plenty of bluebird days. However not everyone is into freezing conditions and challenging terrain. So, by the time the end of the season arrives there is a great chance for those wanting to ski in a warmer climate. Younger children may also find this more enjoyable I hasten to add. Imagine being able to ski on a big resort, with minimal crowds, in temperatures where you could quite easily just wear a t-shirt. The snow conditions are still surprisingly decent apart from going slightly slushy towards the end of the day, and the season itself usually runs from the start of December to the end of April, thus giving interested parties plenty of time to decide on the period which suits them best for their trip. Andorra with its cold winters, and warmer summers has a perfectly variable climate to suit those of all needs.

Accommodation across Grandvalira also suits the needs of the many arriving to tear up the mountain. The most popular area being Soldeu with its lush hotels, apartments, bars, and of course a bit of après waiting for worn out bodies at the bottom of its slopes. It is both vibrant in character and full of life, but if that’s not your cup of tea and you prefer some peaceful seclusion then Grandvalira’s other areas can offer wonderful traditional bricklayed homestays away from all the buzz. This doesn’t mean you are further away from the chairlifts either. Each subsection has its own way to the top of the mountain, although again many like to stay in Soldeu where the main gondola is based. It really is the base for Grandvalira with the majority of things centred around it, and the après lifestyle is no different.

Drinking culture and skiing somehow go together like pineapple on a pizza (I know that’s a contentious subject, but you get my point). Whether you’re a holiday maker, an instructor, a seasonaire, or even a professional competitor everyone gets involved with the après life, from a few chilled beers to out and out parties. Admittedly after a tough old day on the slopes there’s nothing better than to grab a few beers in a relaxed environment. The thing with après skiing which differs from just popping down your local pub, is that you have a variety of people from different walks of life in the same place, all with one similar passion. The social aspect of this is like no other. Everyone socialises together, whereas back in reality they probably wouldn’t converse. Skiing brings people together and Andorra is great for this, especially because of the taxation laws meaning beer is on the cheap side.
Soldeu’s après scene is not huge, but with less places to go its allows for close knit social groups to be formed. Après bars here offer such a friendly and open atmosphere it’s hard not to fall for them. Live music, DJ’s, pool tables, events, table football, and even towards the end of the season outdoor BBQs… You name it they put on everything, resulting in a fantastic social scene. Two places which will kick start your social inauguration here are The Aspen and Fat Alberts, and the rest I’ll let you work out for yourselves!

So small it may be, but Andorra isn’t at all what it seems. With Grandvalira you have one of the largest and best ski areas across Europe, rivalling most other resorts. Yes, there’s not much else here apart from mountains, but what more do you need for a skiing holiday. Excellent quality accommodation, restaurants, bars and spas with a variety of choice to meet differing needs, along with a ski area which is hard to find fault with and you’re onto a winner.
The only downside about Andorra is its ease of access, with either having to fly into Barcelona or drive via car… but then again find me any big ski area with an airport sat on its doorstep. Prices (apart from beer) aren’t extremely cheap, but they are far cheaper than what you’ll find knocking about in France for example. Why is it then that when everyone thinks of a winter break to a big ski area in Europe, the same places always come to mind – France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy?
They are of course fantastic ski areas, and offer probably slightly more than what Andorra can, but you pay a hefty price for that, especially mid-season.
Personally I think it’s because Andorra as a country is small and unheard of. Not many people think that in such a tiny destination there could be something so elaborate and large… But there is.
Inside this small package is a magnificent mountain range, big in size and big in heart. Maybe it’s time to stop judging places from the outside, and look a bit deeper underneath the surface. Honestly, I’ve not got a bad word to say about Grandvalira or Andorra, I really haven’t. My advice to those who love to ride the white lines – take a break from routine, mix it up and try somewhere new, starting with this little gem hidden away in a land amongst giants.

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Long Weekends Away: Short and Sweet or Rushed and Stressful?

“Nothing is as far away as one minute ago”
Jim Bishop

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I realise most of my blog reviews and articles so far have been rather heavy reads, and quite substantial in substance. I understand for some this isn’t ideal reading for the daily commute, or a quick flick in the lunch break.
Well it’s time to meet the needs of the many and those too lazy to read anything more than a few paragraphs, with an article which I’ve been debating with myself for quite some time… Long weekends away, yay or nay?

Work life, family life, rising costs of living (in certain countries) are literally just a few of the stresses and time-consuming aspects life is constantly throwing at us, and it seems with our commitments life is only becoming busier on a yearly basis. So, with the general population becoming more and more bogged down by the daily struggle, the long weekend away has unsurprisingly become a popular choice for those wishing to travel.
The concept of a long weekend away basically involves a cheaper trip over 3 to 4 days which doesn’t even have to occur on a weekend. It allows travellers to get away without the worry of interrupting daily life too much. Cities, towns, villages take your pick the world’s your oyster for a short trip.
Some of these places would not be prime locations for a longer holiday either because of limited landmarks/ points of interest, or the expenditure that would entail. A long weekend away can go a long way in combatting this. For travel fanatics it enables numerous places to be visited in a shorter space of time, as not all of us are multi-millionaires who can travel around the globe 365 days of the year. Sights worth seeing can be explored and ticked off the bucket list, whilst enjoying some ‘me-time’ in the process. Even for those who are not big on exploring, the shorter trip offers a chance of some relaxation away from hectic lifestyles back home, in locations which can be both beautiful and interesting… Traveller or not, you can’t beat a change in scenery.

Short getaways are all well and good, with their nice ideas and concepts, but are they in fact more rushed and stressful than we let on?
Travelling itself can be rather time-consuming and painstaking at times, especially when jet-setting to another country. The days in which you travel are almost write-offs. However, if you neglect doing anything on these days during a short-break, then you are effectively wasting 50% of your trip.
To get around this, travel times are altered to maximise the duration. Anti-social travel hours involve a significant amount of disruption, and you can almost guarantee minimalistic hours of sleep. For the trip itself this doesn’t pose too many issues, most can power through after a few z’s on the plane. However on return to reality, the post-holiday hangover kicks in and it really is like you’ve been hit with a ton of bricks. There is most certainly an undeniable feeling that you really need another holiday to recover from this ordeal. Now add into that the travelling aspect. That wherever the destination may be you have literally got to manage your time so precisely and efficiently that you wouldn’t look out of place organising a military operation. All the sights which you want to see must be crammed in, and their can be no room for error. It can be a whirlwind of a visit, leaving you mentally and physically exhausted. It also begs the question whether on this whistle stop tour you actually had the opportunity to take everything in, and most importantly enjoy yourself. Can you really get a good vibe or feel from somewhere if you’re rushing through?

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I think you can. I’ve had many amazing long weekends away, and for all the hassle they can cause they are more than worth it. Never the less the hangover which subsequently follows can be brutal, especially with a full-on life. For those who like to explore new places these short breaks are far from relaxing, they are tiring, but also ever so rewarding. Is it a case of taking the rough with the smooth then?
I think it possibly is, albeit I’m not entirely convinced either way. I believe some destinations are better than others for the long weekend, that’s a given, but even then how can we avoid just skimming the surface. People have even started branching out into long-haul short trips which I personally can’t see the appeal of at all. At the end of the day it all boils down to whether or not you value your rest, or your desire to travel more. I’d say for me my hunger to see new places, experience new cultures, and meet new people overrides all the negatives which come with it. However, this does not mean I don’t find it stressful and rushed, I just choose the lesser of two evils… I’d rather travel like this, than not travel at all.

So here we have our very own marmite topic. Some will love short trips, others will hate them. For me I’m well and truly going to sit on the fence with this one, if anything slightly erring towards favouring them… at least for now. But here we hit full circle, and back to the original question. Long weekends away: short and sweet, or rushed and stressful… what’s your thoughts?

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Get Lost in Mykonos

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost” — J.R.R Tolkien

In an age of social media and the ‘D’ list celebrity, popular culture has seemingly been engulfed with a new craze… the world of being internet famous. Flashy lives of so called celebrities are beamed out to millions of followers from across the globe via such resources as Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, and with money to be made for being popular the time of the influencer is nigh. So much so, that instead of the average individual working towards a more conventional career, a good proportion of the population now aspire to advertising unheard of teeth whitening products whilst sunning it up in the Maldives. With numerous cases of everyday people making it big, this new world is expanding at an expediential rate. Is it now more common to see people conversing in the street, or to see someone walking down it live broadcasting themselves?

Before you think I’m criticizing, let me make my tedious link. The fact is that the majority of us have engaged in the culture whether we like it or not, from middle-aged people taking selfies, to children with video channels promoting their lives to a bunch of strangers. This is the new age, and travel has somewhat become a substantial part of this modernized lifestyle in more ways than one, epitomized by the Greek Island of Mykonos.

 

Three types of people can normally be found in Mykonos… The rich, those who think they are rich, and those who wish they were rich. In the last few years Mykonos has really burst onto the scene, and become a hot spot for celebrities, wealthy people, and influencers alike. To call it a knock off Santorini would be unwarranted and untrue. However, with the common knowledge of Santorini’s blue and whitewashed houses set upon the hillside with views to match anywhere in the world, visitors have flooded the island in droves causing prices to skyrocket. This in turn has obviously resulted in people searching for alternative destinations, and unsurprisingly Mykonos with its striking resemblances and party scene has fast become the new go to destination.

Super yachts, speedboats, jet skis and even a helipad all litter the shoreline on the south coast showing just how much money Mykonos attracts. Nevertheless, having visited a few destinations where wealth is openly visible, the differences are quite clear. Although noticeably wealthy, places like Nice for example have a classy feel. The rich don’t shove it down your throat so to speak. The same can’t be said for Mykonos, which has an extravagant flavour to it. You get a real sense of people wanting to show off their wealth and flashy lifestyles in a “my boats bigger than your boat” kind of way… Wealthy but not so classy. The people here, young and old strive to live the celebrity lifestyle, and they want the world to know about it.

With the influx of vast sums of money and people willing to spend it, prices are high. More than likely these costs will continue to rise for the foreseeable future, with the popularity of the island only increasing year upon year. However, just because there is an expensive luxury undertone, doesn’t mean you can’t do Mykonos on a budget and still have a wonderful time. Bargains are there to be found, just as long as you want to find them.

Budget or no budget, inconspicuous or flashy, make no mistake Mykonos has so much to offer punters visiting the island. From electric blue oceans with intense colours reminiscent of a vivid watercolour painting, to dreamy beaches where you can whisk the day away. Yet there is no better place to start than the landmark of the island, five old fashioned windmills which stand proud as punch overlooking Mykonos Town. There are in fact sixteen of these windmills located around the town if you fancy yourself a bit of a treasure hunt, but it is the five sat upon the hill which provide Mykonos with its famous image. Cylindrical in shape, with thatched roofs, and a whitewash finish, their unique appearance is part of the charm. The mills handcrafted wooden frame which seemingly transports you back in time gives it that final antique touch.

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In my opinion it’s an absolute travesty if people don’t visit the windmills, or the town for that matter. However, if you think you’re going to take in these views in peace and quiet, maybe even get a stunning picture or two to boost the Instagram profile, then think again. With the town easily the highlight of the island, crowds understandably swarm here in their hundreds. If you’re traveling in the holiday months prepare for a horrific struggle, but even in the so called “off-peak” periods be aware that due to numerous cruises you may end up fighting for personal space. Ideally in these periods it would be worthwhile finding out when the cruises are not going to be dropping anchor in the towns port. This would ensure exploration of the wonders of the town without feeling like you’re stuck in the London Underground during rush-hour, which is a must… more for your sanity rather than anything else.

Its vital to explore the town without crowds as its quite obvious it wasn’t designed for anything more than a peaceful existence. A labyrinth of narrow streets which weave in and out of houses, shops, cafes, restaurants and much more, provide Mykonos Town with something marvellously majestic. Typical blue and whitewashed buildings surround hand painted pathways which lead you on a magical mystery tour through this wonderous destination, and oh how easy it is to get lost along the way (you will realise this is not a dreadful thing at all).
With the sun breaking through onto the white streets around you heightening the brightness, that claustrophobic effect you can feel from other mazes around the world doesn’t occur. In fact, it seems to have the opposite effect. The soothing shadows give respite from the midday scorch, whilst giving travellers a perfectly peaceful environment. Time almost becomes an illusion, appearing to grind to a halt… Life in a typical Greek stereotype completely slows down. This in turn allows you to appreciate your surroundings more. Everything from the smells and colours provided by the flamboyant flowers, to the surprises around every little corner the place just radiates. This is far from flashy, this is a work of art.

When you do decide to break-out of the time warp and find the edge of the network of passageways, just be aware you might not be where you thought you were. Wherever you do pop out though head towards the appropriately named Little Venice. You could argue that the view of the windmills from here is the best on the island, but what I doubt many could argue is you’ll find many better places to sit and watch the sun go down. Little Venice is named as you can probably imagine from its appearance. A mixture of restaurants and bars which arc around the ocean, with coastal water lapping up the sides of its walkways and buildings giving a lovely Venetian ambiance.
As the sun starts to descend, the crowds begin to gather, almost to a state of breaking-point. Of course, they are all here to see one thing. Nevertheless, arrive in plenty of time and prime location on seating will be yours. On our visit we thought ahead. Found the perfect spot from the array of outdoor seating available. No obstructed views, or potential to be fighting for space. Hey, we were two hours early, but who cares when you’ve been wandering about all day. Time to relax, get comfortable, and sink a few beers in good company…

An ideal plan if it wasn’t for the daylight robbery which takes place hither. In hindsight it was perhaps evident that there would be a major price hike due to the location and popularity, but not to this extent. I don’t think I’ve ever drank a small bottle of beer so slow my entire life, and I don’t ever intend to again.
Despite all this it’s worth it when the sun reaches horizon point. While hundreds of visitor’s jostle for a view like a mob of meerkats, you can take in the wonderful aura and scenes without a care in the world, giving you an experience you will never forget.
Meanwhile, Frederick and Channel who are sat next to you will probably be on their tenth bottle of Don Perignon, whilst telling anyone willing to listen about that time they sailed around the pacific… but who cares when you’ve got an overpriced beer and such vibrant views!

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Talking of extraordinary views and an influencers dream come true, Mykonos has one of the best viewpoints you’re likely to find… at least around Europe. Hidden away in a somewhat secluded and secretive location, resting high above the Town is the 180° Sunset Bar.
Immerse yourself into a birds-eye view, and let the sights bedazzle you. Alas, here you can see everything all the way from the port to the quintuplet of windmills. The views are spectacular, the bar is lavishly designed, and with a windmill and archway there is ample photo opportunities. If that’s not your cup of tea, just sit back and enjoy the views, it’s more than worth the sketchy trek up from the port side of the town.

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Now if you’re into your history and like to explore, then your next port of call should be… well the port. From here journey out via ferry on a thirty-minute quest to the nearby island of Delos. An uninhabited island, widely regarded as one of the most important and mythological archaeological sites in Greece. Ruins upon ruins are scattered over this dusty landscape, some well preserved, others not so much. You could wander around for hours if that’s what you wished for, although with the ferocious heat of the suns rays beaming down on you in an over-exposed location you might choose otherwise. Due to the extensive excavations the majority of the islands most impressive artefacts and structures have been removed, many of which can be found in the onsite museum.
If you are into your history and exploring unfamiliar places, then the trip is definitely worthwhile. If, however looking at old piles of rubble really isn’t your thing I’d advise you save your money, as again overpricing is apparent.

There seems to be a reoccurring theme of high-costs and overpricing, but like mentioned previously there are bargains to be found. It really is up to the individuals on how much money is spent. If you want an all-inclusive accommodation, with your own spa pool on a balcony you’re going to end up paying for it. Meanwhile self-catering apartments which overlook the sea are just down the road for extremely competitive prices. The same can be said for food. If you’re planning on fine-dining every night then you might want to take out a loan before your trip, although that could be said for numerous places around Europe. Expensive doesn’t always mean better either. Search around the variety of tavernas, read reviews, talk to people in the know. There are some real gems out there which are more than reasonable in price. Being close to the coast unsurprisingly seafood takes up a lot of the menus, nevertheless Greek salads, moussakas, pastries and other delicious traditional food are readily available. The food it has to be said is mightily impressive, but none more so than one of the cheapest edible items you can find. The pita chicken gyros’ are to die for, and no that is not an exaggeration. Not healthy, not classy or luxurious, just straight up fresh and homemade traditional Greek comfort food. If you’re in Mykonos town then set your GPS map to find a take-away restaurant by the name of Sakis, and you can thank me later!

Mykonos. It has the beaches, it has the weather, it has culture, architecture, a party scene, tranquil waters, cuisines to make your lips smack… this list could go on an on. What more could you want from a destination.
Unfortunately, with any great destination comes popularity and eventually notoriety. The ever-increasing number of people arriving on the island is somewhat of a turn off point. People who have been visiting for years believe this is only likely to keep increasing at an unsustainable rate, until Mykonos becomes overwhelmed. Local businesses are just trying to take advantage while they can, bumping prices higher and higher year upon year. My fear is eventually this place will outgrow itself. The rich and those wanting to live the celebrity lifestyle will move on to the next trendy destination, as with any popular craze there is evidently a rise and a fall. In the meantime, Mykonos will continue to grow. It is without question an idyllic destination. However, pick and choose your travel decisions wisely, none more so than your dates of travel. Avoid the crowds, extortionate fees, and the craziness which comes with it and you’ll be rewarded with heavenly relaxation and a world of exploration. That is unless you enjoy all that razzmatazz. If you get it right the potential for an unforgettable trip is high, my advice…Take your time, and go get yourself lost in Mykonos.

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